Although we’ve possibly witnessed the best games of Euro 2016 in the previous stages of the knockout round, France’s showdown with Portugal is built to be a fascinating prospect.
Two teams that have attempted to join world football’s elite over the past decade offer several intriguing clashes prior to kickoff. Neither France nor Portugal have been remarkable throughout the tournament, but have found a way to cruise through favourable matches thus far.
Germany presented France’s sole threat in the previous round, and Didier Deschamps were completely outplayed for the first half, and were fortunate to pounce on mistakes committed by Joachim Low’s defence. Deschamps men won’t have to worry about spending long periods without the ball or intelligent playmakers across the pitch against Portugal, but the system isn’t relatively convincing.
Possibly the biggest decision the French manager must make is whether to persist with the 4-4-2 or revert back to a 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 has been the catalyst to France’s best performances against Iceland and Ireland, but against the Germans, they were completely outplayed for large portions of the match.
Against a Portuguese side containing the best player in the tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo, Deschamps may have to rejig his shape. Deschamps’ obsession with the 4-4-2 is based around the tournament’s leading goal-scorer, Antoine Griezmann, playing closer to Olivier Giroud in a central role, whilst receiving the space to maximize his talent.
If Deschamps were to opt for a 4-3-3, Griezmann would be pushed out wide, but France would have a solid shape in central areas as they transition to a 4-5-1.
In ways the system can still be effective with Griezmann and Payet attempting to overload William Carvalho between the lines, as it’s evident both men strive in central positions. Olivier Giroud will attempt to hold off Pepe and bring his teammates into play, but with two roaming space invaders, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba should receive space to penetrate.
However, this leaves Pogba and Matuidi with defensive roles ahead of the back-line, which ultimately decreases their ability to charge forward towards goal. Kante’s inclusion provides a midfielder filled with dynamism and the ability to break up plays and swift counter-attacks, which is exactly what the hosts lacked against Germany in the opening half. France were guilty of leaving too much space between the lines and ahead of the midfield bank – Griezmann and Giroud did very little from a defensive aspect – against Germany, which offered players like Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, and Jerome Boateng space to excel.
Luckily for the hosts, Portugal doesn’t have midfielders at their disposal that are capable of dictating the tempo of a match like the aforementioned German stars. Fernando Santos identified his best XI in the knockout round, as Portugal has operated in an unorthodox 4-1-3-2 en route to the finals, with wide players in Ronaldo and Nani leading the line.
In fairness, neither France nor Portugal have been consistently good throughout the tournament despite their easy road to the final, but the latter in particular has been fairly uninspiring. Apart from a few standout performers in Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Adrien Silva, and Nani, there’s very little to get excited about the Portuguese side.
Their attacking play has been predominantly based around crosses from the full-backs, and their functional midfield has been unable to supply service to the frontmen, who in fairness, have made excellent runs throughout the tournament. More so, they struggle to put together slick passing moves in the final third along with exploiting space between the lines.
Frankly, the goals Portugal have scored in the knockout round are telling – Ricardo Quaresma’s counter-attacking goal came when Croatia pushed too many men forward, Renato Sanches’ equalizer against Poland followed one of the game’s few nifty combination plays, whereas Ronaldo notched a set-piece winner and his scuffed shot was fortuitously redirected by Nani to eliminate Wales.
Santos essentially fields three gritty midfielders ahead of William Carvalho that are quite similar in terms of skill level and traits, but severely lack creativity and guile around the penalty area. Meanwhile, although the full-backs have been great from a defensive aspect, their contributions in the attacking third have been equally scarce.
William Carvalho’s return from suspension should see the midfielder push Danilo to the bench, following his difficult afternoon against Gareth Bale in the semi-final win over Wales. Assuming Portugal stick to their current defensive approach and willingly drop into two banks of four out of possession, Carvalho will still face a huge defensive task on the night.
Portugal haven’t been quite convincing out of possession when they transition into a flat 4-4-2, and with Griezmann and Payet aiming to find pockets of space in central zones, William Carvalho could be susceptible of being overrun via a combination of quick incisive passes and deep midfield runs. Likewise, Deschamps has several counter-attacking threats within his XI, so it’s unlikely that Portugal will push several men forward as it would increase the likelihood of being exposed in transition.
The other major talking point involving Portugal is their goal source. Nani and Ronaldo have been positive in this respect, scoring timely goals from minimal service from their teammates. The former’s movement towards the channels has posed issues throughout the tournament, and he’s developed a knack of poaching goals within the penalty box.
Ronaldo’s winner against Wales displayed his set-piece threat, and if Portugal’s full-backs can deliver quality crosses into the box, Santos’ talisman could be the decisive factor. It’s likely Ronaldo will aim to drift to either back post when crosses are played into the box due to his height advantage over diminutive full-backs Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra.
The Portuguese forward’s opener for Real Madrid in the 2012 Champions League knockout round against Real Madrid witnessed Ronaldo leap over Evra to score against his former employers, and here, he may attempt to replicate that feat. It would be expected that Portugal can also rely on counter-attacks if Kante starts on the bench, yet oddly, their transitional attacks have been underwhelming.
In wide areas, both full-backs have become adept to providing width, but there could be a hint of caution displayed from both, here. Cedric and Raphael will be wary of a French counter, and while Sagna and Evra have improved as the tournament’s progressed, Ronaldo offers arguably the greatest threat on the counter ever, which may see Deschamps’ full-backs limit their adventurous positioning.
While set-pieces can prove significant, there are still many key decisions both managers have to address that could impact the outcome. Portugal’s protection of the back four, along with Deschamps’ decision to play a two or three-man midfield will be pivotal. Nonetheless, this is equally poised for Ronaldo to produce on one of the biggest stages for his country, and it will be interesting to see how Santos aims to utilize his captain.
It can’t be overstated the significance of the first goal, but this could be a cagey affair until one team is forced to push forward.